This spring, the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels will open the very first exhibition to showcase the black-and-white Chesapeake-focused photography of Robert de Gast. This major exhibition, “Robert de Gast’s Chesapeake,” runs May 12 through April 2018, and features 80 photographs curated from the more than 10,000 by Robert de Gast in CBMM’s collection.
A Robert de Gast photograph of neighbors’ children playing in a small rowing skiff on Mill Creek near Annapolis. According to a 2015 interview, Robert said, “I had children of my own, and I was very often reporting on their activities, oftentimes involving the water, so I was always drawn to children in boats.”
Robert’s black-and-white photography gained widespread attention with the publication of his book, The Oystermen of the Chesapeake, in 1970. Local author and writer for The Baltimore Sun Tom Horton wrote that Robert de Gast “produced a work of genius, one of the finest books on the bay ever done. His black-and-white photographs captured the elemental nature of watermen and their work better than color ever could.”
Born in Holland, Robert (1936–2016) immigrated to the United States with his family after World War II. He volunteered for the U.S. Army, which sent him to photography school. First stationed in Washington, D.C., Robert ultimately settled in Annapolis where he briefly worked with American photographer Marion E. Warren before leaving to work as an independent photojournalist and commercial photographer. His work was published in Skipper, Popular Boating, US Naval Institute Proceedings, Sail, The Rudder, Chesapeake Bay magazine, and Smithsonian from the 1960s to the 1980s. After The Oystermen, Robert went on to publish The Lighthouses of Chesapeake Bay (1973) and a journal of a cruise, Western Wind, Eastern Shore: A Sailing Cruise around the Eastern Shore of Maryland, Delaware, and Virginia (1975).
This self-portrait of Robert de Gast was taken in the cockpit of his 21-foot Dovekie Fiddler. He was exploring the Potomac River in September 1994 during one of the cruises that led to his book, Five Fair Rivers.
The works in the exhibition are principally drawn from these three books and his assignment photography for various periodicals. Although he never completed high school, Robert showed a gift for writing that is reflected in his books’ essays as well as in later books of photography and prose.
A Robert de Gast photograph of a hydraulic rig from 1969. In an essay in his book, Oystermen of the Chesapeake, Robert wrote “A recent development is the hydraulic rig, which operates twice as fast … The installation of a hydraulic rig requires several thousand more dollars than the conventional rig, but with a little luck could pay back its investment in one season.”
Robert de Gast’s “Chesapeake” will include 80 matted and framed exhibition prints, shown in a manner that enhances the stark aesthetic, artistic perspective, and intimate familiarity of his work. While it is on show, CBMM is planning a wide range of accompanying programming, including a speaker’s series.
“I’m very excited for these exquisite photographs to emerge from CBMM’s collection for all to enjoy,” commented CBMM President Kristen Greenaway. “Robert de Gast’s work is exceptional in capturing the Chesapeake’s stories and quintessentially Eastern Shore sense of place through his keen eye and captivating photographic style.
“Last August, my son and I – along with a dear friend – traced de Gast’s journey on our own small boat adventure, an incredible opportunity and captivating way of experiencing and exploring the Chesapeake Bay. De Gast’s photographs and text take you on this journey and beyond, and will bring the timeless beauty of the Chesapeake to St. Michaels and CBMM for all to enjoy.”
A limited-edition exhibition catalogue, which will be available for purchase in the Museum Store after the exhibition opens, includes images from the exhibition, complemented by essays from journalist Randall Peffer, editor Robert Brugger, Chesapeake photographer David Harp, and CBMM’s chief curator Pete Lesher, who curated the exhibition and collected recorded interviews with the artist toward the end of Robert’s life.
CBMM’s collection holds more than 68,000 items, all related to the Chesapeake Bay. Items include the largest collection of Chesapeake Bay watercraft in the world, along with decoys and waterfowling objects, marine engines, maritime models, paintings, prints, photography, and objects of maritime trade. Numerous historic structures are included in the collection, including the Point Lookout Bell Tower, Tolchester Beach Bandstand, and the 1879 Hooper Strait Lighthouse, which was moved to its current location in 1966. For more information about CBMM, visit cbmm.org.